Last year, in June 2011, I published, in this site, an in-depth analysis titled ‘Terrifying the Press Signals Defeatism’. The immediate cause of the article was (the implication of) the absence of an official statement regarding the detention of two members of the media.

Though the article was – almost entirely – a criticism of the government’s handling of the private press, it briefly noted the ugly face of the latter as follows:

“At one end of the spectrum, you find irresponsible newspapers, like, the now-defunct Askual newspaper, owned and edited by Eskinder Nega. For instance, it regularly added ‘(an Oromo)’ whenever it wrote Prof. Andreas Eshete’s name. It is a common knowledge that Andreas is an Amhara from Northern Shewa, a locality that was allegedly a stronghold of the All Amhara People Organization(AAPO), of which Eskendir Nega was(still?) a vice Chairman. Andreas Eshete didn’t care to correct it, but it is obvious Eskinder Nega was doing it purposely – whatever the motive.

Well, this is nothing compared to the fact that Askual newspaper run a series, at least for a year or so, a column that directly and unequivocally attacks the Tigray ethnic group. It had written, in one of its issue in 2001, that ‘the German Nazi must have been annoyed by the Jews as we are by the Tigrayans that must be what pushed them to carry out the Holocaust’. This is a direct quote! And, despite the passage of time, I am quite sure of it, as the person directly responsible for it was member of a central committee of an opposition party – of which I was then a member and later resigned after demanding his demotion.

On the other end of the spectrum, we find Addis Fortune, Addis Admass, Ethiopian Reporter and the now-defunct Addis Neger. Of course, they leave much to be desired. Yet, their drawbacks and merits are resultant of the skewed growth and gradual maturity of the press, respectively, as much as the personal preference of the owners/editors.” [See here (link)]

(Note: About 15 hours after the publishing of the article, the government issued a statement on the grounds of the detention and has started doing so immediately after subsequent arrests. Commendable, though the article asked much more than that.)

No Ethiopian or foreigner openly challenged the veracity of my statement regarding Eskinder (quoted above) to date, though recently I learnt some have doubts.

Months later, in September 2011, Eskinder Nega was detained on suspicion of terrorism. This blog reported his detention, yet remained silent to date on the debate that followed. Because, a meaningful analyses of the detention of Eskider and other opposition activists would require reviewing the evidences and/or a theoretical discussion of the legality of a revolt. (Two of several key topics – on which I am guilty of procrastination). Anything below that would either be an uncritical reiteration of other’s arguments or a mere repetition of the concerns I already raised in the June 2011 article.

The beatification of Eskinder NegaEskinder Nega - Ethiopia

Shortly afterwards, however, the western media incredulously decided to make Eskinder Nega the poster child of the Ethiopian media and free expression.

The Economist magazine featured Eskinder Nega in its article titled “the tightening noose on Ethiopia’s press freedom”, at the end of September 2011, weeks after Eskinder’s detention. Worse, it mentioned Eskinder Nega’s newspapers as if exemplary ones. I was flabbergasted, thus compelled to comment under the article by simply copy-pasting the above-quoted statements of mine about Eskinder’s newspapers. About an hour or so later, the economist removed a family photo of Eskinder Nega from the article in an apparent attempt to distance themselves. An inadequate, yet a commendable, when compared to others.

In December, CPJ (Committee to Protects Journalists) posted an article claiming ‘it would be hard to find a better symbol of media repression in Africa than Eskinder Nega’. CPJ’s article portrayed Eskinder as a principled man who spent the last two decades defending human rights and currently facing an imminent death penalty. I didn’t bother to make a lengthy comment this time – as I had known that they were aware of my June 2011 article. Yet, I simply asked, in a tone much softer than common to me, whether they are unaware or supportive of the genocidal rhetoric of Eskinder’s newspapers and whether an insider tipped them that the prosecutor will propose death penalty, as the trial was at an early stage. They simply deleted my comment. Yes, CPJ censored me! Even strikingly, they were not even curious enough to contact me for clarification or evidence, though I commented, as usual, using my real profile.

Of course, as intended, that article on CPJ website was the main reference for subsequent articles and statement bestowing on Eskinder Nega the titles of ‘blogger’ and ‘human rights defender’ who is ‘facing death’.

A notable case, based on CPJ article, is the January 2012 article on the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof which claimed Eskinder could be suspected of none but advocating free speech and the end of torture. (Kirstof was also very incensed by an Ethiopian court’s prison sentence on two Swedish journos to the extent of engaging in racial profiling.)

A week later, a UN  Rapporteur expressed her concern for the ‘human rights defender blogger facing death’. Yes, she was referring to Eskinder Nega.

The ultimate prize must have been the mention of Eskinder’s name on the heading of the State Dept.’s  June 27 press statement – issued following the criminal convictions of opposition activists. Though, oddly, Eskinder’s name was absent in the the body of the statement.

Oh, yes. Just for added effect, there was that press release by  PEN American Center on April announcing an award for Eskinder. PEN’s officials went beyond a blanket praise of Eskinder by phrases like – ‘that bravest and most admirable of writers’. They made explicit endorsement of his papers noting that he was ‘the general manager of Serkalem Publishing House, which published the newspapers Asqual, Satenaw, and Menelik’.

The Hypnosis

Giving a face to a story, rather than reporting it in general terms is a useful tool of advocacy. I am not oblivious to that. Again, the need to push the Ethiopian government to re-think its handling of the private press as well as the non-transparent blocking of websites is not lost to me – as could observed here, here and elsewhere.

Indeed, I don’t endorse cherry-picking facts and hyperbole to advance an agenda – like, hiding from readers that all, perhaps except one, of the imprisoned, including Eskinder, were active members of a political party. But this could lead to a debate on the borderline of a news report Vs. a petition and journalism Vs. advocacy as well as on questions of ethics – like – whether the end justifies the means.

The afore-mentioned points, including mediocrity, might partly explain why the western media and organizations are comfortable with the beatification of a man like Eskinder Nega. Though, I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t pick others as a poster child of their advocacy – say, journalist Wubshet Taye – the only one, among the arrested, with no official affiliation to a political party; or columnist Reeyot Alemu, a woman and presented with charges the least compelling evidences than all.

The matter has now reached an absurd level.

The hypnotic effect of the non-stop media praise of Eskinder Nega created the impression that praising Eskinder is a synonym to supporting press freedom. Even otherwise rational individuals are observed seeing a disapproval of Eskinder Nega as a support of all recent (perhaps also future) arrests of opposition activists. Though, that is a completely unrelated topic.

Recently, tired of explaining why I don’t share his saint-like image of Eskiner Nega, I posed a direct question to a foreign journalist: That is his frank opinion of my June 2011 remarks (quoted above) regarding Eskinder’s newspapers. He responded by saying:

I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think it is true. I don’t read Amharic and wasn’t here around 2005. However, the quotes you used may have been taken out of context. Maybe it could be argued he was anti-TPLF sentiment, not anti-Tigrayan. Knowledgeable, impartial people tell me he isn’t a person who advocates violence or sectarianism.

Granted, there were some inaccuracies in my June 2011 statement – as I learnt after weeks-long searching for the copies of the newspaper.

* The Holocaust related remarks were not as implicit as I indicated. Rather, they were made very explicitly and with frequent emphatic assertions that ‘a cancer race or community should be eradicated’.

* Again, the genocidal remarks equivalent to the one I quoted (in my last year article) were made not in a single edition in 2001, rather in at least five issues in 2004.

* The anti-Tigrayan series didn’t run only for a year, rather for at least four years, since year 2001.

What stroke me most in the journalist’s response, however, his doubts of the veracity of my remark. Mind you, this is from a sensible guy who is well-placed to observe my intelligence and genuineness. Not to forget, the option available to him, as well as any reader, to observe that this is not a blog for concocted claims and, when practicable, to demand evidences. In fact, I wondered why the guy visits this blog if he expects an ‘error’ or misinformation of this margin and gravity?

This was the last straw that made me to comb newspaper archives – for several weeks – to find the outrageous writings published on Askual Newspaper.

The outcome was not a mere sentence or paragraph that corroborates my June 2011 remark. Rather, a series of unequivocal, explicit racially inflammatory writings that needs to be brought to light. Which, I am going to publish – both in Amharic and English – in this blog.

(To be continued – on Sunday)

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P.s. – This article was drafted on the first week of July, when Eskinder was awaiting Court verdict at the time. I decided to delay the publishing to preclude any claim of foul play, though the Court case has no direct relation to the matters raised in this article. The subsequent two months had their own surprises, thus entailing further delay.

Check the Human Rights archive for related posts.

Daniel Berhane

Daniel Berhane

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